20 Jan

This past weekend I think I took a major step forward in my development as a comic, and that was to stop giving as much of a fuck about the audience.

Now on the surface this sounds counter-productive. A comedian is an entertainer, his job is to keep the audience entertained. However, in my experience, if you become so preoccupied with just pleasing the audience that pleasing them is your only priority, you become afraid of them and give them enough power over you that it actually hinders your ability to entertain them.

The show I do on Saturdays is at a sports bar, and apparently there was some important football game going on between the Packers and some other team that wasn’t the Packers (I don’t know football) that very night which they were playing on all the TVs in the bar. As people are wont to do when watching football, they were screaming loudly, with the kind of intensity you would save for screaming at someone trying to kidnap your children or screaming at your arch nemesis as your secret laboratory hideout crumbles around you. The only separation between where we hold our shows and the rest of the bar is a pair of velvet curtains, so not only were there not that many people at the show to begin with, but for a good three quarters of the show, every comedian on stage had to fight against the noise coming from outside.

I kind of took it personally. I’m not a very big sports person. My dad is, but my childhood can be summarized by the slow fade of hope from his eyes as every attempt to transfer his love for sports onto me failed, becoming pretty convinced I was gay until I had my first girlfriend junior year of high school. I just grew up associating sports and sports culture with a hypermasculine, unjustifiably mean and aggressive and vaguely homophobic attitude that turned me off, and on top of that, it was something popular kids talked about and participated in. Even when I was a wrestler, I didn’t feel like I assimilated into sports culture, because it was a sport nobody at my high school and nobody in Miami really gave a shit about, so it felt like just another subculture that allowed me to enjoy my typical nerdy insularity.

So I was angry. I saw everyone in that room who were probably just innocently having a good time as a room filled with bullies and popular kids, the kind who tripped me on the bus and called me queer in middle school and high school following me into my adult life like some kind of time-travelling supervillain just so they could ruin my good time at a comedy show,  my safe zone, my happy place that they were violating. On top of that, audience members were leaving before I went on, since it got late in the show, so I was angry at them, too. I was just filled with resentment and anger. When I went onstage, I decided if I wasn’t going to have that much of an audience to please, I was just going to talk about my resentment and anger.

Apparently it was one of the best sets I’ve done in a while. I went up on stage and started just telling everyone there the kinds of things I just wrote about that I was feeling, although with a little bit more humorous flair, and it got consistent laughs. It helped that I had already written material about my days as a wrestler that I was able to segue into, but it seemed on the whole I was just engaging the audience more effectively (even the 4 or 5  that weren’t comics) because I was exposing myself and my vulnerabilities, trying to create something humorous from my own emotional truth. I was making them understand me, which made them understand my jokes, planned and unplanned, better. I don’t even remember a lot of what I said on stage, but afterwards I had several of the other comics tell me it was a really good set. The guy who ran the show told me he was impressed. So I did something right that I hadn’t done before.

Then came Tuesday, time for the open mike I usually do at that same bar. Before the mike started, though about fifteen or so people I had never seen before who were definitely not comics came in and filled up the room. This was definitely unusual, but it at least prompted the mike to start on time. As the mike went on, we found out there was some comedian there who was from Australia who must have been on vacation with them because they were all his friends and classmates from college. It basically turned into a real comedy show instead of an open mike since there was more audience than had been there on Saturday.

“Fuck,” I thought. Here’s a room filled with people all there to see one person, which means they probably aren’t going to cooperate at all with any comedian who ISN’T their friend. One of the girls, during the host’s opening set, even called out “We want [name of friend]!” (I’m trying not to put people’s names unless it’s in a wholly positive light)

So I got angry again because I felt like the whole deck was stacked against me with this audience. I got nervous because I was wondering how to get them on my side. Then Joe Alfano, a guy who’s always on my side,  saw the concerned look on my face, leaned over to me and just said “Don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah, fuck them,” I decided. This was just an open mike, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by them. I was gonna go up on stage and just do my shit, and if they didn’t like it, well, they got what they paid for.

It worked. I started by first acknowledging their presence: “So you’re all from Australia, so don’t be surprised that when my set ends up going down the toilet, it spins in a different direction.” That broke the ice. Then I wanted to clearly let them know that I wasn’t afraid of them. I started to rehash some of the material about football that I had come up with on Saturday, but added a bit of ironic commentary about how they should have known what game it was that happened Saturday because American sports are the only sports in the world that matter. That got a laugh. Then I made some reference about how the game was “our” football, not “their” football, and riffed about how soccer players will go down like they’ve been shot if they have so much as a hangnail. Then one of the Australians shouted out “That’s English people, not Australians!”

My response: “Who gives a shit?”

Everyone in the room laughed pretty hard at that. Sure you could say it’s funny because it plays on the stereotypical American ignorance of other cultures, but I think what really made it funny to them was just my refusal to let them in. They tried to impose their rules and I was like “Nope, this is my court, my game, we play it my way.” I think my willingness to take and maintain control like that made them more willing to surrender their laughter to me. Afterwards, the guy who runs the show told me again I had a very good set, and he usually is conservative with explicit praise.

When I first started stand-up, I kind of put my set on rails. I had my jokes, I wrote them on a list, and when I got on stage I would go down the list and do nothing else. Tell joke, pause for reaction. Tell joke, pause for reaction. Now, I feel more comfortable just riffing, working the crowd, and doing stuff in the moment, working it around my planned material. Even the stuff I plan isn’t as concrete anymore, usually leaving room for me to fiddle with it to fit the situation. I think a lot of it comes from more confidence in myself and less fear of the audience, thus less fear of doing stuff that’s not “safe” and predictably successful.

I’m turning my comedic persona into more of an expression of my own self and not some molded idea of what I think the audience thinks I should be. I put myself out there in a way that no longer says “For God’s sake please like me,” but rather “This is me. If you don’t like it, you’re going to have to grit your teeth through the next five to ten minutes either way, so you’re better off liking me.” For some reason, the latter just works. All of my favorite successful comedians are people who challenge audiences and cater to audiences who like to be challenged: George Carlin, Louis C.K, Patton Oswalt, etc. I guess, despite my lack of aggression being such a hindrance to my ability as a wrestler in high school, I have found my own font of aggression, which is to sublimate it into humor instead of physical violence.

Ultimately this means I’m proving Freud right, but I’m all right with that. Having this desire to aggressively put forth my comedic dominion on the audience will mean I will always work to write jokes that are satisfying to my standards and stay consistent with my own ideas of artistic and emotional truth, rather than seek comfort in easy, obvious, and hackneyed premises.

Yes, I’m starting to sound a bit like Marc Maron, Jr. over here, but hey, I was over-intellectualizing and over-thinking things way before it was cool.


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